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Joanna Lumley: a mistress of modesty

Gemma Calvert / 21 August 2018

The glamorous yet down-to-earth Joanna Lumley talks about her new TV travelogue, and why she loves strangers' random hugs.

One of Britain’s most stylish actresses is trying to convince me she is no-frills. ‘People think that I’m secretly glamorous. I dress up so hard for my public appearances but, really, in real life, I’m absolutely disastrous. I wear really sad old things,’ proclaims the former Sixties' model, best known for her riotous tenure as Bolly-swigging Patsy Stone in multi BAFTA-winning Absolutely Fabulous.

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Today, on a hot afternoon, her choice of attire is ‘all right’: a pair of brand new denim jeans and a loose-fitting shirt, which, she explains, is ‘about ten years old’.

It’s casual chic and thank goodness. That Joanna Lumley might not perpetually ooze natural, unwavering style, not just on the red carpet but pottering around her five-storey home in Stockwell, South London (where I meet her), is like saying that the Queen has a profound affection for monochrome or that sex appeal has evaded Tom Jones. It somehow goes against the grain. It’s so very un-Lumley.

Joanna is a mistress of modesty. At one point she says, ‘I don’t admire myself at all,’ and claims her success as getting ‘a few good acting jobs’, her ‘name being remembered’ – has all been such a ‘huge surprise’. Joanna is a beguiling mix of no-nonsense womanly charm and unpretentiousness – no mean feat for a member of acting royalty who, at 72, next year celebrates half a century in the business.

Joanna ‘adores’ the Tube, cuts and dyes her own hair and can often be found queueing at her local Post Office, where only this morning she was stopped by an ardent fan.

‘A woman said “Oh, my God. It’s Joanna! Give me a hug,” so we had a huge hug. I love things like that,’ enthuses Joanna. ‘I have hugs off random strangers all day long.

‘The world is full of the dearest people,’ she continues. ‘People fall over themselves to say kind and good things. The kindness of strangers always amazes me.’

In June, while striding down London’s Regent Street, she tripped on a kerb stone and was sent flying. ‘As I went down in slow motion, I thought, “Don’t let me break my wrist,” but I wasn’t hurt at all – being an Avenger [Joanna played Purdey in secret-agent series The New Avengers] I know how to fall. The people at a nearby bus stop helped me up and, nevertheless, it was such kindness.’

When I ask her to cite her own last gesture of goodwill, Joanna chuckles. ‘No, no, no, I don’t. I’m a cruel old witch!’ she says, self-effacingly dodging specifics.

Earlier this year, Joanna experienced ‘overwhelming kindness’ when filming her most challenging travelogue to date: following the Silk Road, one of the world’s oldest and most historically important trade routes from China to Venice, traipsing in the footsteps of Marco Polo and a million ancient traders for an ITV documentary series that starts this month.

‘The generosity of Asia Minor is incredible,’ she says. ‘They will pass food across the table to you and try to press presents into your hand. They want you to stay in their houses and would give you the coats off their backs.’

Joanna hails Iran, where she spent ten days in June, as ‘the most revealing’ country she has travelled to since her TV globe-trotting adventures began a decade ago with a visit to the Northern Lights for the BBC, followed by Japan, Siberia, Egypt and India. ‘It’s hard because they’ve got people watching on every street and if your headscarf slips off, someone will report you. But underneath were people who were lively, who loved literature, food, music and all kinds of things that we don’t think of in the Islamic Republic of Iran because you only ever hear the bad government side.

‘We’ve been trying to go there for three years and were always rebuffed,’ explains Joanna. ‘When we got a message saying, “You can go,” we absolutely sped there.’

She explored other under-visited countries along the Silk Road, too. ‘Until the Soviet Union collapsed, the Stans – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – were administered by Russia and were hard to film in, so people don’t really know about them.’

On the Silk Road, Joanna’s preconceptions were consistently challenged. Take Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a place she had down as ‘a dusty street with a few old bazaars’ but where she beheld ‘great avenues, huge trees, parks and chic people on a par with Paris’.

She also talks enthusiastically of visiting the haunting, spectacular ruins of Persepolis in southwest Iran, a city burned by Alexander the Great more than 2,000 years ago.

‘To know that you’re following in the footsteps of some of the greatest legends who have ever lived – Alexander the Great included – it’s just extraordinary.’

‘To know that you’re following in the footsteps of some of the greatest legends who have ever lived – Alexander the Great included – it’s just extraordinary,’ says Joanna, who was so awestruck she sent postcards to friends back in London urging them to pack their suitcases immediately.

Born in Srinagar, Kashmir, the daughter of a major in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, Joanna was eight when she moved from Malaysia to board at St Mary’s convent school in Hastings. As a child, she fantasised about walking along the Great Wall of China – a dream finally realised on the Silk Road tour, which she describes as ‘pretty near perfect’. But did she ever feel nervous visiting places that aren’t quite so firmly on the tourist radar?

‘Never. Not a bit,’ she responds before the question ends. ‘What set us back mostly – please don’t get put off by this – was that sometimes the lavatory is literally a foul hole in the ground. The stench and horror, you can’t breathe and I’d rather go behind a bush. Those are things that are challenging.’ With her cut-glass eloquence and euphonious tones, even Joanna’s toilet troubles sound positively captivating.

Doing these travelogues is, she says, ‘hard work but lovely work. It isn’t a holiday but a change is a holiday and seeing new things that you love. I’m not much one for lying down in one place and going brown. I’d rather spray myself if I have to – I haven’t yet, but I can see that coming – then go and look out interesting things.’

For those who are unfamiliar with Joanna’s style of travel programme, the focus is not politics but ‘the real people, what they do, how they live, what they’re like and what their homes are like’.

Joanna’s passion for people has made her an indefatigable defender of human rights over the years, most notably a decade ago when she successfully lobbied for the right of Gurkha veterans to come and settle in Britain.

‘Medical cannabis can ease the suffering of millions. Time to stop criminalising them. Sign the petition,’ urges one of Joanna’s Tweets. Another pleads: ‘Please don't let the darling people of Lambeth lose their Library’.

‘I can’t believe that in our lifetime we’re going to see so many huge and tiny animals becoming extinct because of the greed and stupidity of human beings.’

Only this morning Joanna felt stirred reading a newspaper article about lions being beheaded so their skulls can be used in Far Eastern traditional medicine. ‘I can’t believe that in our lifetime we’re going to see so many huge and tiny animals becoming extinct because of the greed and stupidity of human beings,’ she sighs, seething and sorrowful in equal measure.

‘It breaks my heart. I want to hire planes and fly over China and air-drop millions of Viagra tablets and say, “Try these instead of killing lions and tigers”.’

Gordon Brown once praised Joanna’s ‘campaigning skills’ after her Gurkha victory. You might assume she feels empowered that her celebrity status gives her power to make the world a better place. But Joanna is realistic. ‘Even if you try hard, there are some giants in the world, like the multinational corporations, which are not easily changed by [someone] having been an actress in a TV show.

‘Usually, what changes people’s minds is the fear that they will die if they go on, hence Mrs Edwina Currie saying salmonella and everyone stopped eating eggs. If you’d said, “These eggs are produced in the cruellest way imaginable,” people would have gone, “Yeah, but I love eggs”. And money. All this talk about Brexit, it’s all about [which government] is going to lose this [trade] deal, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong for our country to be making and selling weapons. Money and greed seem to drive us.’

‘I’m quite good at fighting my own wars and standing up for myself.’

Who last stood up for Joanna’s best interests? ‘I’m quite self-contained,’ she says. ‘I’m quite good at fighting my own wars and standing up for myself.’

She’s right. Joanna’s life reads like a soap opera. Turned away from RADA at 16 for being too plummy, she became a single mum at 21 (her son Jamie is now 50), subsequently endured a nervous breakdown and spent years acting small ‘pretty-girlfriend’ roles in shows such as Coronation Street and Steptoe and Son, before her big break – being cast in The New Avengers.

Joanna is undoubtedly durable. Last year she received the BAFTA Fellowship, TV’s most prestigious award (above), which was presented by her Absolutely Fabulous co-star and friend Jennifer Saunders. ‘That knocked me sideways. When you see the list begins with Alfred Hitchcock, you think, “This is extraordinary”.’ But I sense frustration in her tone when I enquire whether she’s failed to achieve anything that she once hoped she might.

‘The list goes round the block, darling. Round and round the block. The things that I ought to or could have done or would like to do or still, creakingly, might have a crack at.’

Such as?

‘All kind of parts! In plays and films, scripts not written yet. All actors are the same. Our eyes are always on the letter box [for] the next script. Nobody rests on their laurels and thinks, “I’ve cracked it”. Even when they’ve got knighthoods and damehoods, they don’t really think that.’

Joanna’s OBE came in 1995 but there’s no sign of a damehood, yet. Not that Joanna has time to dwell. Her first live tour It’s All About Me kicks off next month, featuring a back catalogue of semi-unscripted anecdotes from Joanna’s glittering career, which is adorned with professional liaisons with superstars including George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Moss. Should her A-list pals be worried about her divulging any behind-the-scenes secrets?

‘No, no, no!’ roars Joanna. ‘I walk about staring at the giants and occasionally working with them or being with them, but if anything funny or ghastly happens, it’s always me who fell over or did something wrong.’

We return to the subject of the Silk Road, a place I sense Joanna feels more comfortable discussing. Tomorrow at 8am, she will bid farewell to her conductor husband of 32 years Stephen Barlow, 64, and embark on her final adventure – to Venice, Albania, Turkey and Georgia – flanked by her ‘well-loved crew of six’.

When she’s not ‘rushing on these trips’, she enjoys pottering in the garden (‘I love that, when your mind is nothing but weeds’), painting and admiring her ‘frame to frame’ gallery of artwork, which she is eager to re-hang after a recent home renovation. Joanna will have more time to relax next year and has no plans as yet to ‘stray’ too far from home.

‘I want to spend a bit more time seeing beloveds,’ she says pensively. ‘My beloved home, my beloved husband, my cats and, up in Scotland, my beloved son, his wife and my beautiful granddaughters.’

As I reference Alice and Emily, her teenage grandchildren, Joanna expels an appreciative ‘Mmm mmm’, as though savouring a vintage glass of red or a delicious vegetarian meal (she’s not eaten meat for 50 years).

‘It’s divine being a grandparent,’ she says. ‘Just to be with them and talk.’

Perhaps retirement would free up more time for such joys?

‘I don’t think you retire in our business,’ replies Joanna. ‘Either it retires you or you gradually cut down on what you’re doing and, if you’re lucky enough still to be asked to work, what could be nicer?’

Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure starts on ITV this month. Inspired by her travels? Join us on one of our Silk Road tours; visit Possibilities members get an extra £100 off Uzbekistan tours.

For more details of Joannas It’s All About Me tour, visit


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